The Baby’s Gone

“The baby’s gone.”

I see her, the one I love,
surrounded by wilted flowers.
Her sheets, her dress, are torn, bloody.
It’s as if something with a monstrous claw…
Do not awake oh innocent one
taste the blood on your lips.

“The baby’s gone.”

She’s sitting bolt upright
clutching nothing to her breast
staring at her bloody hands sharp nails
and has she bitten her tongue?

“Murderer.” “Cannibal.”

And above the accusations
the howling of a stag-hound bitch
for her six slaughtered pups.

“The baby’s gone.”

The circles beneath her eyes
are dark as the moon that has ceased
to ride across the night skies as she crawls
on her hands and knees through the long dark tunnels.

Upon her back she carries the world as a theatre
acting out a mystery play that begins
as a nativity and grows dark.

“The baby’s gone.”

And is that his laughter
she hears on the other side
of the wall or is it some changeling
she follows fingers tracing hieroglyphs?

Has this happened before and did she draw
these very pictures to remind herself?
Seek not the truth at the heart
of the labyrinth dear one.

“The baby’s gone.”

In the play I am evil –
on my head there are bull’s horns.
They dare not admit I am her father or lover
or brother reaching out from behind the curtains
to take the son who is mine from
where she lay with another.

“The baby’s gone.”

Where did I put him this time?

She’s tracing the outline of an otter
and she is splashing through the water
on the bank of a river with him trying
to catch a silver salmon slipping

through his claws turning to stone –

a cold dead speckled fish and next
the dragonfly that landed on the end
of her nose and how we laughed…

She did not see the wolf in me.

“The baby’s gone.”

Yet I saw her wild horse.

She’s close to touching the truth.
She’s reading the symbols like braille.
On her back the bone mare is riding to the stable
where the claw lies severed fingers clutching
neither boy nor foal but emptiness.

(We cannot hold what we love.)

He is the object of her riddles.

“The baby’s gone.”

I am behind her curtains.

On the stage there is a man
beneath her skirts and the time
of revelation is drawing nigh.

“The baby’s gone.”

When she reaches the heart
of the labyrinth the truth is too terrible
to behold the centre unfolds.

She gallops back into not-knowing.

She is waiting outside the stable
for the old man leading a colt
with a boy upon his back.

Whose is this kindness?

“The baby’s gone.”

The Monstrous Claw

after the noise an enormous claw comes through the window, and grabs the foal by the mane. Teyrnon draws his sword and cuts off the arm at the elbow… by the door there is a small boy.’
The Second Branch

I’m just reaching out
for your foal, for your first-born son.
I like to see blood on my claws.
I like the taste although
I do not eat them.

I just want you to know
there is a hole in your reality
bigger than the sun.

That nothing is safe.

Nothing.

You are not the only one who feels terror.

I know you long for my blood –
to lick it from your blade
when you have nailed
my arm above your window.

The exchange must be complete.

You try to close the window again.

How long can I go on reaching out
when it only ends in pain?

How long can you go in dread?

Daronwy – The Prophetic Oak

Daronwy Long 300

I. The Oaken Warrior

In The Book of Taliesin there is a prophetic poem titled ‘Daronwy’. Taliesin poses the question ‘Py pren a vo mwy; / No get daronwy?’ ‘What tree is greater / Than he, Daronwy?’

Dar is an alternative form of derw ‘oak’. Thus Daronwy is an oak tree. Pren ‘tree’ or ‘wood’ is also a figurative term for a warrior and its fluidity is the key to understanding Daronwy’s nature. In medieval Welsh literature warriors are often referred to as trees and even plants. In The Gododdin the combatants are called ‘trees of battle’ and ‘battle-leeks’. The army of Brân the Blessed is seen as a marching forest in ‘The Second Branch’ and Gwydion enchants trees to do battle against an army of ‘herbage and trees’ led by Brân  in ‘The Battle of the Trees’. Thus Daronwy is both tree and warrior.

In Triad 26 Daronwy is referred to as ‘one of the Three Great Oppressions of Mon’ along with Palug’s Cat and Edwin, king of Lloegr. This suggests he was located on Anglesey and may have been a tree who local people believed had the capacity to come to life and fight on notable occasions.

He perhaps gave his name to the township and stream Dronwy (formerly Daronwy) in North-East Anglesey. Other place-names derived from Daronwy include Daron in Llyn, Darowen near Machynlleth, and Darwen here in Lancashire. They may all once have had their own Daronwy stories.

II. Thundering Prophecies

Additionally, John Williams notes thaty daran is a ‘servile form’ of taran ‘thunder’. Thus ‘dar’ signifies both ‘oak’ and ‘thunder’. The thundering voice of derw ‘oak’ is mentioned in ‘The Battle of the Trees’: Derw buanwr: / racdaw crynei Nef a llawer.’ ‘Oak swift of shout: / Heaven and Earth trembled before him.’ This fits well with the image of Daronwy as a great oaken warrior.

Another word that derives from dar is darogan ‘prophecy’. This is significant because oaks are linked to thunder gods and their prophets across Western Europe. At Dodona the priestesses of Zeus prophesied by the sounds and movements of the leaves and branches of the sacred oaks. There were oaks on the Alban Mount where Jupiter was worshipped and at Praeneste where he was reverenced with his mother (who is elsewhere seen as his daughter) Fortuna whose oracle prophesied with oak rods. Donar’s Oak, sacred to Thor, in Hesse, was sadly cut down by Saint Boniface in the 8th century.

The term ‘Druid’ originates from derw and gwydd ‘knowledge’, suggesting that the Druids gained wisdom and prophetic insights from their relationships with oak trees. In ‘The Battle of the Trees we find the lines: ‘Derwydon, doethur, / daroganwch y Arthur!’ ‘Druids, wise men, / prophesy Arthur!’

Unfortunately there are no direct references to our Gallo-Brythonic thunder god, Taranis, having a sacred oak. However, in his Natural History (77-79), Pliny speaks of the Gaulish Druids sacrificing two white bulls in an oak grove. Bulls were sacred to Zeus and Jupiter and a white bull was sacrificed to the latter during the feriae in the Capitol. Thus it seems likely this sacrifice was to Taranis and that the Druids, like the prophets of Zeus and Jupiter, practiced dendromancy in oak groves. That they communed with Daronwy whose thundering voice was one with the thunder god’s.

III. The Oak Between Two Lakes

Taliesin goes on to say: ‘Yssit rin yssyd uwy – / gwawr gwyr Goronwy; / odit a’e gwypwy.’ ‘There is a secret which is greater – / the radiance of Goronwy’s men; / it is a rare man who knows it.’ Marged Haycock suggests the name Daronwy may mean the ‘oak tree of Goronwy’. The identity of Goronwy is a question of debate. Possible candidates are Goronwy, who hung Roger de Pulesdon during the Anglesey revolt in 1294, and Goronwy ab Ednyfed, who led king Llywelyn ap Grufudd’s troops to triumph against the Marcher Lords in 1263. I suspect Goronwy may be an older mythic figure.

Haycock says it’s possible the name derives from Gronw Befr. An oak is central to the story of the rivalry between Gronw and Lleu Llaw Gyfes in ‘The Fourth Branch’, yet it is far more intimately connected with Lleu than with Gronw. Gronw is the lover of Lleu’s wife, Blodeuedd. Together they plot to kill Lleu, who can only be killed with a spear crafted for a year every Sunday when people are at mass and ‘cannot be killed indoors nor out of doors… on horseback, nor on foot’. Blodeuedd tricks Lleu into enacting the only position in which his death is possible. Lleu stands with one foot on a billy-goat and the other on a bath tub with an arched roof over it and Gronw strikes with the spear.

The wounded Lleu departs in eagle form to an oak ‘between two lakes’ in ‘a valley’ (Llyn Nantlle Uchaf and Llyn Nantlle Isaf in Nantlle). This tree occupies a liminal position and possesses magical qualities: ‘Rain does not wet it, heat no longer melts it.’ Lleu’s wound turns rancid. As flesh and maggots fall from him they are eaten by a great sow. The sow leads Lleu’s uncle, the magician god, Gwydion, to him. Gwydion sings Lleu down from the oak with a trio of englyns and nurses him back to health.

IV. The Lightning Tree

In Lleu’s story we find two liminal images which may have their origin in pre-Christian traditions. The conditions of Lleu’s death distantly echo the story of the infant Zeus being dangled on a rope from a tree so he was was suspended between earth, sea, and water, thus invisible to his child-eating father, Cronus. It is also of interest that Jupiter Dolichenus, a thunder god worshipped throughout the Roman Empire between the 2nd and 3rd centuries, including here in Britain at Vindolanda, was depicted holding a lightning-rod, standing on a bull, and accompanied by an eagle. The strange, parodic, and slightly pathetic image of Lleu on his billy-goat and roofed bath tub may derive from these.

800px-Dolichenusvotive

Lleu’s ascent in eagle-form to the oak following his spear wound contains echoes of Odin’s sacrifice of himself to himself on Yggdrasil, the World Tree,where an eagle sits in the highest branches, to gain the knowledge of the runes. And the fate of Jesus, pierced by a spear on the holy rood – a wondrous and sentient tree. Lleu’s ritual death and rescue by Gwydion, who sings him down from the heights, to the middle, to the bottom of the oak, contains elements of shamanic initiation.

It also seems significant that Lleu’s ability to kill Gronw with a spear results from his initiatory experience. Lleu is cognate with the Irish Lugh who possesses a lightning-like spear. Oak is renowned for being a tree that attracts lightning and mistletoe was believed to be produced by lightning and thus to contain its magical qualities as a gift from the thunder god. For this reason the cutting of mistletoe from an oak, along with the slaughter of the two white bulls, was part of the Druid ritual shared by Pliny. It seems that Lleu won his lightning-spear and, perhaps, also the lightning-like inspiration of prophesy from the thunder god whilst in bird-form in Daronwy’s branches.

Lleu’s associations with the lightning tree suggest it was not connected with his darker rival, Gronw. It seems the identity and stories of Goronwy, who may be referred to by Taliesin in the lines, ‘now no-one visits me but Goronwy from the water-meadows of Edrywy’, have been lost in the mists of time along with the great secret of the radiance of his men. Perhaps this was the lightning-like battle-skills and prophetic inspiration gained by initiates of the mysteries of Daronwy?

IV. The Fruitful Wand

The following lines, which mention Mathonwy, who is referred to in ‘The Fourth Branch’, add strength to the argument that Daronwy is associated with Lleu’s epiphany:

Hutlath Vathonwy,
ygkoet pan tyfwy,
ffrwytheu rwy kymrwy
ar lan gwyllonwy.

Mathonwy’s magic wand,
when it grows in the wood,
promotes fruits/successes
on the bank of the Gwyllonwy.

Mathonwy is the father of Math, who is the uncle of Gwydion. Math uses his own magic wand to punish Gwydion and his brother, Gilfaethwy, for plotting the rape of his footholder. He turns them into boars, deer, and wolves, alternately male and female, who mate with each other and bear offspring.

Lleu is ‘born’ as a ‘small something’ dropped by Arianrhod after the sturdy yellow-haired boy Dylan when she steps over Math’s wand. He is raised by Gwydion who takes the role of foster-father.

The hutlath ‘wand’ or ‘staff’ is essential to Mathonwy and his descendants for the arts of magic and enchantment. As these lines appear in a poem dedicated to Daronwy it seems likely their wands were made of oak and channelled the lightning of the thunder god. Perhaps by this power Math and Gwydion brought Taliesin and Blodeuedd to life, respectively from the seven elements and the blossoms of oak, broom, and meadowsweet, and Gwydion enchanted the trees to battle against Brân’s army.

The image of the wand growing in a wood is a fascinating one that works on many levels. Here it regains its life as a tree, bearing fruit, both literally and metaphorically. Haycock notes that, in the Christian tradition, ‘Aaron’s rod (sometimes equated with the rod of Moses)… put forth buds, blossoms and ripe almonds… this miraculously flowering staff of Scripture was connected typologically with the incarnation of Christ, and its wood with both the Tree of Life and Christ’s Cross.’

V. The River of Madness

The location of the wand ‘on the bank of the Gwyllonwy’ is also significant. This river-name derives from gwyllt, which means ‘mad’, ‘wild’ and ‘spectre’. Throughout the Celtic tradition there are many instances of people becoming gwyllt or geilt in the Irish language. One of the most famous is Sweeney Geilt, who becomes geilt and takes bird-form after being cursed for murdering a psalmist:

His brain convulsed,
his mind split open…
His fingers stiffened,
his feet scuffled and flurried,
his heart was startled,
his senses were mesmerized,
his sight was bent,
the weapons fell from his hands
and he levitated in a frantic cumbersome motion
like a bird of the air.

It may be suggested that when Myrddin Wyllt becomes gwyllt after murdering his son and daughter at the Battle of Arferderydd he takes the form of a merlin before retreating to the forest of Celyddon. The experience of becoming gwyllt gives Myrddin his powers of poetry and prophecy.

Suffering trauma, becoming gwyllt, taking the form of a bird and taking to the trees are common motifs in Celtic literature. This is exactly what happens to Lleu. It may thus be suggested that the wand/oak is located ‘on the bank of the Gwyllonwy’ because this river represents the stream of gwyllon, of those who have become gwyllt, living and dead, who have received initiations in the trees.

V. Daronwy – The Brythonic World Tree?

The centrality of Daronwy, the prophetic oak, in the epiphany of Lleu suggests he may have been seen as the Brythonic World Tree. The image of the wounded Lleu in eagle-form receiving lightning-like inspiration from the thunder god in his upper branches whilst down beneath the great sow (who may be the goddess Ceridwen, who takes the guise of a black tailless sow on Nos Galan Gaeaf) devours the rotten flesh and wriggling maggots of his former being is a powerful one.

Perhaps it is because Daronwy was associated with initiatory rites and prophetic wisdom along with sacrifices to the thunder god that he was viewed as an oppression. I wonder whether such rituals were viewed as giving power to the oak, who could be invoked as a warrior for strength in battles, who might come to life with a marching forest of oaken warriors to the aid of his people at times of need?

Daronwy Wide

*With thanks to Greg Hill for passing on Marged Haycock’s translation of ‘Daronwy’, which is cited here.

SOURCES

A.O.H. Jarman (transl.), Aneirin – Gododdin, (Gomer Press, 1998)
Arthur Bernard Cook, ‘Zeus, Jupiter and the Oak’, The Classical Review, Vol.17, No.3, (1903)
Diego Chapinal Heras, ‘Between the Oak and the Doves: Changes in the Sanctuary of Dodona Over the Centuries’, Simple Twists of Faith, (2017)
James George Frazer, The Golden Bough, (Oxford World’s Classics, 2009)
John Williams, Gomer; or a Brief Analysis of the Language and Knowledge of the Ancient Cymry, (Hughes and Butler, 1854)
Marged Haycock (transl), Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS, 2007)
Marged Haycock (transl), Prophecies from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS, 2013)
Rachel Bromwich (ed), The Triads of the Island of Britain, (University of Wales Press, 2014)
Seamus Heaney, Sweeney Astray, (Faber & Faber, 2001)
Sioned Davies (transl.), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
Will Parker, The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, (Bardic Press, 2005)

The Wizard of the Waves

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I.
Several years ago, I made the mistake of offending Manawydan. I was new to journeying. My guide took me to the otherside of Blackpool and we alighted outside a swimming pool. On the wall was a stereotypical plasticy image of a wizard in starry indigo-blue robes with a wand and bent wizard’s hat. Cartoon letters beside him read: ‘THE WIZARD OF THE WAVES’.

I couldn’t believe my eyes. I was incredulous. This wasn’t how the otherside appeared in books about shamanism. Turning to my guide I asked affrontedly “why have you brought me to see this tacky wizard?”

The wizard stepped from the wall and raised his wand. The scene dissipated with the dismal crashing of all the waves of the sea. I found myself back in my room immensely disorientated. Later it dawned on me that I’d offended Manawydan. I felt like kicking myself.

II.
Manawydan’s stories contain deep magic. However I struggle to connect with him because he’s humble, practical, wise: all the things I’m not.

After the catastrophic battle against Matholwch, King of Ireland, where Brân was slain, Manawydan and seven survivors returned with his head. They feasted with it for seven years at Harlech then for a potentially interminable period on the island of Gwales.

In the feasting hall in Gwales there were three doors: two open, one closed. Previously Brân told them “so long as you do not open the door… you can remain there and the head will not decay. But as soon as you open that door you can stay no longer.”

Manawydan echoed his brother’s wisdom. ‘”See over there… the door we must not open.”‘

Darned doors. Particularly the closed ones. They’re such a temptation. As soon as someone says “don’t open that door”…

This time the culprit was Heilyn. When he opened the door and looked out all their past sufferings and losses returned. Brân’s head began to decay.

III.
Manawydan should have inherited Brân’s Kingdom but it was usurped during their sojourn in Ireland by Caswallon. To make up for his loss, Pryderi offered him Dyfed and marriage to Rhiannon.

Manawydan and Rhiannon were happily married and became firm friends with Pryderi and his wife, Cigfa. Their life of hunting, feasting and enjoyment was brought to an end when a blanket of mist descended leaving Dyfed devoid of men, domestic beasts and dwellings.

They survived in the wilderness for a year by hunting and fishing and eating honey from wild bees. Tiring of their frugal lifestyle, Manawydan suggested leaving for England to earn a living through craftsmanship.

In Hereford Manawydan took up saddlemaking. There were was more than a hint of magic about his work: he enamelled the pommels with the skill of Llasar Llaesgyngwyd; the gigantic blue smith who forged the Cauldron of Rebirth and delivered it to Brân.

Manawydan was a victim of his own success. The jealous townspeople decided to kill him and his company. Pryderi’s response was to “kill these churls.”

More sensibly Manawydan said “if we were to fight them, we would get a bad reputation and would be imprisoned. It would be better for us to go on to another town and earn our living there.”

Pryderi listened and they moved on. However when Manawydan took up shieldmaking he coloured the shields the same way they coloured the saddles. Again the townspeople were jealous and they were forced to move on.

In the next town Manawydan took up shoemaking. Instead of using enamel he made friends with the goldsmiths who taught him to make golden buckles. He became known as one of Three Golden Shoemakers and again was far too successful for his own good.

IV.
Manawydan and his company decided to return to Dyfed. Out hunting they were led by a white boar to a fortress. Manawydan recognised the work of whoever put the spell on the land and advised them not to enter.

“Don’t enter that enchanted fortress!” A bit like “don’t open that door…”

Pryderi rushed straight in. Enraptured by a golden bowl, upon touching it, he became speechless and well and truly stuck. Rhiannon followed and suffered the same fate. The blanket of mist descended and in a blink of an eye the fortress was gone.

Manawydan saved the day by capturing the pregnant wife of Llywd Cil Coed, the enchanter, in the form of a mouse. Ransoming her at a miniature gallows he persuaded Llywd to remove the magic from Dyfed and release Pryderi and Rhiannon.

V.
Manawydan’s stories are filled with magic. He’s got deep knowledge of the magical arts, those who wield magic, the unfathomable nature of magic itself. He’s a true wizard.

However if I was in his stories I’d indubitably be the one who failed to listen to his advice. Who could not resist the temptation to open the door or storm the fortress. Who’d still be wandering through mist subsisting on wild fruits and honey or staring entranced into a golden bowl.

But I’m not in his stories. He’s started coming into mine. In a memory that’s not my own in which I’m drunk aboard The Manxman: a boat moored at Preston Dock and used as a floating nightclub pulled away in 1991 long before I was old enough to drink.

In dreams of tides and shoes and rollercoasters dropping into the sea. In the call of gulls. In the tidal pull of the sea drawing me further and further up the Ribble estuary to the coast.

VI.
The medieval stories of the Brythonic deities are immensely valuable. However because they were penned by Christian monks nearly a thousand years ago they can impose a filter on direct experience of ‘pagan’ deities in the twenty-first century.

I’ve learnt a lot from Manawydan’s devotee, Angharad Lois, who keeps a blog called From the Edges which features stories from the shorelines and also Muddy Boots and Mistletoe where she’s part way through the Thirty Days of Devotion project for Manawydan. Angharad carefully weaves Manawydan’s lore together with her own experiences and contemporary art and literature presenting a fuller picture of who he is in the modern world.

I found a quotation Angharad picked out by Alison Leigh Lilly, about Manawydan’s Irish cognate, Manannan Mac Lir, resonated with me ”One day I am sweet, another day I am sour,’ says the Irish trickster god Manannan mac Lir in his guise as the traveling buffoon whose hat is full of holes and whose shoes squish with puddle water when he walks.’

I recognised this deity in The Wizard of the Waves and this wooden carving of a wizard at Martin Mere titled ‘The Great Mere Vanishing Act’ where he says ‘Can you find the missing mere?’

Quiz on walkway, Martin Mere

Well I worked out what happened to Martin Mere: fifteen miles of lake drawn out to sea by the pumps at Banks. But I still haven’t fathomed Manawydan. Maybe that’s it. Maybe the Wizard of the Waves is unfathomable as magic and his deep blue starry robes of the sea.

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Review: Creatures by Greg Hill

Creatures by Greg HillGreg Hill lives in Wales. He was editor of The Anglo-Welsh Review and contributes regularly to Welsh literary magazines. I’ve followed his blog for a while and was delighted when I heard about the release of his first full length collection of poetry in print; Creatures.

The title alone creates intrigue. What kind of creatures? The epigraph replies; ‘All creaturely things… Plants growing, / Roads running, / Rivers flowing, / Places that sing.’ It is clear from the outset this collection is about an animate landscape where every being is a creature, alive and sentient.

The first ekphrastic poem is based on the picture on the cover; Fidelma Massey’s sculpture, ‘Water Mother,’ who dreams thoughts of water into being. Here, the ‘cosmic ebb and flow’ of thought and water is contained in the poem. Analogies between living water and perception recur throughout the book. In ‘Cwm Eleri’ the poem’s tight structure fails to contain the river, which slips from grasp like time. In ‘Myddleton’s River’ water-ways link London, Wales and the underworld, forming a conduit for complicated alchemical processes of mental and physical transformation.

The contrast between our immediate perception of creatures and those aspects of their being impossible to grasp is central. A jackdaw sitting happily in the hearth becomes ‘an image… a token of wildness… like a jigsaw piece from another puzzle;’ a homely and familiar event made strange. Greg writes that as a heron dips out of sight ‘a part of me fell out of the sky with it,’ lost ‘except that something / settles in the flow of these words.’ We can never completely grasp our perceptions. Only through words can they find permanent representation.

Several poems present roads, paths and boundaries as living entities and how our understanding of them shifts once they are crossed and they slip into memory. If we try to return, the roads are ‘dull,’ ‘dusty,’ ‘empty.’ Our former selves are shadows, unfamiliar reflections. ‘Strange border guards’ usher us ‘from what / we neither know nor recognise.’ These haunting and complex poems demonstrate how choices shape our relationship with the landscape and hence our memories.

The mysteries of the Bardic Tradition and its creatures are explored in novel ways. ‘Awen’ depicts a shepherd lad inspired to speak poetry by a spirit ‘like a forest god’ who is elusive as the words he inspires. Four episodes from the Mabinogion are covered. I was fascinated by ‘A Scaffold for a Mouse,’ which depicts ‘Manawydan living in a dream / landscape with the life / conjured out of it like a flat plane.’ Through his ‘firm grip’ on the mouse, ‘a small thing / for a great purpose,’ he breaks the ‘powerful magic’ of Llwyd, awakening ‘form to its true nature’ thus freeing Rhiannon, Pryderi and Cigfa.

This collection depicts a relationship with the creaturely world that is on the surface simple and direct yet beneath mysterious and disconcerting. Each time I return to these poems I discover new meanings and thematic relationships within the whole. I’d recommend this book to anybody who likes poetry with lots of depth and has a love for nature, myth and creatures.

Creatures can be purchased through Lulu here: http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/greghillpoetry

Greg Hill’s poetry site is here: http://greghill.weebly.com/
Greg’s blog, Hill’s Chroicle can be found here: http://hills-chronicle.blogspot.co.uk/

Gwyn ap Nudd and the Spirits of Annwn: Remembering the Underworld Gods

I recently came across an article through the Caer Feddwyd Forum (1) called ‘The Underworld Gods’ by medieval scholar, Will Parker. It brought to my awareness the existence of an inscription in Chamalieres in central France, which took the form of a prayer or invocation addressed to an entity or group of entities known in Ancient Gaul as the andedion, ‘the Under-world God(s)’ or ‘Infernal One(s)’ (2).

Parker links the andedion to the Irish andee ‘non-gods’ and suggests a similar group of deities would have been worshipped in Iron Age Britain. Through etymological links between the ‘elements Clt. dio(n) (Ir. dé) ‘god(s)’ and ‘the suffix ande-/an-‘ he connects them to Annwn ‘not world’, Britain’s indigenous otherworld or underworld. Parker goes on to identify the andedion and andee with the spirits of Annwn and their ruler, Gwyn ap Nudd.

This is of interest to me because Gwyn is my patron god. Parker’s insights make it possible to trace a trajectory from Iron Age beliefs concerning underworld gods, through Gwyn’s appearances in medieval literature and later folklore to those who worship him today.

Gwyn ap Nudd ‘White Son of Mist’ is a Brythonic deity. His veneration dates back, at least, to the Iron Age, where he appears as Vindonnus ‘White or Clear Light,’ in a trio of Gallo-Brythonic inscriptions in Essarois. Here he is equated with Apollo, another hunter deity (3). It is likely he was worshipped across Britain as Vindos ‘White’ (4). It has also been conjectured that Gwyn and his hunting dog, Dormarth ‘Death’s Door’ occupied the astrological positions of Orion and Sirius to the ancient Britons.

Cave, SilverdaleParker suggests Late Bronze Age ‘ritual shafts’ and ‘offering pits’ containing depositions including human and animal bones, grain, pottery and metalwork express a ‘quid-pro-quo’ relationship between the ancient Britons and the underworld gods. If he is correct, it is possible that Vindos / Gwyn, Dormarth and other kindred spirits were involved in these rites.

Gwyn’s first literary appearances are in medieval Welsh texts; ‘How Culhwch Won Olwen’ (11th C) in The Mabinogion and ‘The Dialogue of Gwyddno Garanhir and Gwyn ap Nudd’ (13th C) in The Four Ancient Books of Wales. These texts have roots in an older, oral tradition and contain fragments of tales from across Britain that predate Christianity. A significant number of these, including two featuring Gwyn, are from ‘The Old North’ (5). This is important to me because I connect with Gwyn in Lancashire.

Parker argues that superstitions about the underworld gods carry over into The Mabinogion. This is evidenced in the disappearance of livestock, children and crops. Pwyll’s encounter with Arawn, a King of Annwn, is the catalyst for the unfolding drama of the first four Mabinogi. Parker says these stories show the spirits of Annwn could not ‘be simply dismissed or ignored. Instead, a complex narrative had to be constructed in which, through a series of symbolic ritual manoeuvres, their power was drawn out, confronted and finally neutralised.’ The attempts of medieval scholars to disempower these deities can be seen at work in the development of Gwyn’s mythology.

In ‘The Dialogue of Gwyddno Garanhir and Gwyn ap Nudd,’ (6) Gwyn is presented as a divine warrior returning from battle to the Tawe near the vale of Neath. Gwyddno, ruler of Cantre’r Gwaelod, speaks of and addresses him with reverence and respect. ‘Bull of conflict was he, active in dispersing an arrayed army, / The ruler of hosts, indisposed to anger, / Blameless and pure was his conduct in protecting life.’ Other epithets Gwyddno uses include ‘hope of armies’ and ‘hero of hosts.’ ‘Host’ may refer to the spirits of Annwn.

Gwyn introduces himself as ‘Gwyn, the son of Nud, / The lover of Creurdilad, the daughter of Lud.’ He names his horse as ‘the torment of battle’ and refers to Dormarth as ‘truly the best of dogs,’ ‘handsome,’ ‘round bodied’ and ‘ruddy nosed.’ References to his possession of a ‘polished ring’ and ‘golden saddle’ are also suggestive of his status.

The title ‘Bull of Conflict’ refers to Gwyn’s role as a psychopomp. At the end of the poem he describes his travels across Britain gathering the souls of fallen soldiers. He appears to be berating this task. ‘I have been where the soldiers of Prydain were slain, / From the East to the North; / I am alive, they in their graves! / I have been where the soldiers of Prydain were slain / From the East to the South / I am alive, they in death!’

This poem contains important clues about Gwyn’s identity as a divine warrior and huntsman, whose role was to gather the souls of the dead and take them to Annwn.

In ‘How Culhwch Won Olwen’ in The Mabinogion, Gwyn is depicted as a huntsman and advisor to King Arthur. His place in Arthur’s court list and apparent subjection to both Arthur and God may be read as attempts by medieval scholars’ to explain and downgrade his position.

That ‘Twrch Trwyth will not be hunted until Gwyn son of Nudd is found’ (7) hints at his role as leader of the hunt, and knowledge of otherworldly beings. The Twrch was a king reputedly turned into a swine by God. When Gwyn does not reveal his location it is possible he is defending his own.

The advice of Gwyn and Gwythyr ap Greidol ‘Victor Son of Scorcher’ is also needed by Arthur to find Pennant Gofid in the ‘uplands of hell,’ which Evans and Bromwich say is ‘clearly situated in North Britain’ (8). When they reach this location, Gwyn and Gwythyr advise Arthur in his defeat of the ‘The Hag of Pennant Gofid,’ another otherworldly entity. The parcity of their advice, which leads to several failed attempts by Arthur’s men before the Christian King is forced to step in to slay her, may also suggest that Gwyn and Gwythyr are acting as tricksters.

A pair of lines fundamental to understanding Gwyn’s mythos, and which continue to intrigue and perplex me, are the following; ‘God has put the spirit of the demons of Annwfn in him, lest the world be destroyed. He will not be spared from there’ (9).

Taken literally, this seems to mean that at some point during the period of Christianisation God put the spirit of the demons of Annwn ‘in’ Gwyn’s person to prevent the world’s destruction. Or it may mean that he granted Gwyn rulership of them for this purpose. However, it is probable that the agency of God was brought in as a cover to excuse the prevalent belief in the existence of these spirits and their ruler.

Even if we assume God’s agency is a cover for existing beliefs, the notion that Gwyn somehow contains ‘the spirit of the demons of Annwn’ is a fascinating one. In a conversation via e-mail, Heron (10) told me the word ‘spirit,’ in Welsh, is ‘aryal,’ which can mean ‘ferocity,’ ‘essence’ or ‘nature’. He referred me to Evans and Bromwich, who say ‘Gwyn’s partaking of the ‘nature of the devils of Annwfn’ indicates a recognition on the part of the redactor of the tale that Gwyn ap Nudd belonged to a sinister and forbidden mythology’ (11). Within this mythology he may already be seen to embody the nature of these entities, or to hold power over them.

That the destruction of the world is at stake suggests Gwyn’s role was extremely significant. If it is assumed this notion has older roots, some of the offerings of the ancient Britons may be explained as attempts to placate these spirits and their ruler due to their destructive capacity. It is also possible Gwyn was invoked as the only being who could hold them in check.

Fears and superstitions surrounding Gwyn and the spirits of Annwn may lie behind the story of his abduction of Creiddylad. After Creiddylad, who is both Gwyn’s lover and sister, elopes with Gwythyr, Gwyn seizes her back. It might be assumed he takes her to Annwn, and that this suggests an underlying fear of being abducted by Gwyn and his forces.

Gwythyr amasses his armies and attacks Gwyn. Gwyn triumphs and captures a number of Gwythyr’s allies, who are mainly rulers of the Old North. During their captivity Gwyn slaughters Nwython, cuts out his heart and feeds it to his son, Cyledr, who goes mad. This could be read as a clear example of Gwyn’s ferocity and hints at existing superstitions about what goes on in Annwn.

Evans and Bromwich say the concentration of the names of people Gwyn kidnaps suggest ‘that north Britain was the ultimate place of origin for the Creiddylad episode, and that this incident was one of the surviving fragments of tradition emanating from there’ (12). It is therefore likely it originates in earlier beliefs held about Gwyn and his host by the Northern Britons.

Arthur eventually comes North to Gwythyr’s aid and frees his noblemen. Afterward he makes peace between Gwyn and Gwythyr by placing a dihenydd ‘fate’ on them. This dictates that they must fight for Creiddylad’s hand every Calan Mai ‘May Day’. An added condition, which seems particularly unfair, is that Creiddylad must remain in her father’s house, and no matter who wins neither can take her until Judgement Day. It is likely Arthur’s agency was brought in to explain an earlier myth, which was already prevalent in the Old North.

Whilst, on one level, this myth may be about fears of abduction to the underworld, it is more frequently interpreted as a seasonal drama comparable with Hades’ capture of Persephone. In this reading, Creiddylad is a maiden goddess who embodies the powers of spring and fertility. Creiddylad’s abduction by Gwyn may explain the failure of these powers at Calan Gaeaf, the first day of winter. Gwythyr and Arthur’s rescue of her at Calan Mai, the first day of summer, may explain their resurgence.

Winter Hill

Winter Hill

Gwyn is also seen as the Winter King. It is possible his white, shining qualities relate to snow and cold, associations which could date back to the Ice Age. Elen Sentier links Gwyn with the reindeer goddess Elen of the Ways (13) and the Boreal forest. He may also be connected with the North wind. The 14th C Welsh poet Dafydd ap Gwilim refers to ‘Tylwyth Gwyn, talaith y gwynt’ ‘the family of Gwyn, the province of the wind’ (14). The pervasiveness of a myth featuring Gwyn in Northern Britain could have a basis in its harsh winters.

In a later text, The Life of St Collen (14th C), Gwyn is referred to as ‘the King of Annwn and the Fairies’ and is supposedly banished by the saint from Glastonbury Tor (15). The transition from belief in Gwyn as a King of Annwn to King of the ‘Tylwyth Teg’ or ‘Fair Folk’ is a significant one. The original natures of Gwyn and the spirits of Annwn are covered over by their reduction to diminutive form. However, hints at their mythos can still be found in the majority of folktales.

Gwyn retains his status as leader of the Wild Hunt in the folklore of Wales and Somerset. There he is seen to appear on horse back with a pack of white, red-eared hounds, riding out on Nos Calan Gaeaf and through the winter months, chasing down the souls of the dead. To hear his hounds is an omen of death. The other riders are seen often seen as captive souls and may represent the spirits of Annwn.

In the North West of England, however, the hunt is assigned either to the Norse god Odin, or to Christian angels. In Cumbria it is Michael, and in Lancashire and Yorkshire Gabriel is said to lead a pack of black, red-eyed dogs, the Gabriel Ratchetts.

Coincidentally, Preston born writer Francis Thompson is famous for a poem called ‘The Hound of Heaven.’ Anybody who has felt like Gwyn’s hounds are on their tail might find these lines hauntingly familiar; ‘I fled Him, down the nights and down the days; / I fled Him, down the arches of the years; / I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways / Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears / I hid from him, and under running laughter.’ (16)

More recently, Gwyn’s significance as an ancient god has been attested by contemporary scholars such as Geoffrey Ashe, in King Arthur’s Avalon (2007) and Nicholas R. Mann in The Isle of Avalon (1996) and Glastonbury Tor (2012). He is also the subject of a full length book called Gwyn: Ancient God of Glastonbury and Key to the Glastonbury Zodiac (2007) by Yuri Leitch.

This increase in interest suggests we are approaching a time when Gwyn and the spirits of Annwn are taken seriously as Brythonic deities again. However, the main focus of these books is Gwyn’s role at Glastonbury, with only a small mention of his place in Wales and other areas of Britain. Disappointingly there is no mention of Gwyn’s activities in the North. In this respect I have only my own experiences and conjectures to go on.

Fairy Lane

Fairy Lane

I first met Gwyn on Fairy Lane in my hometown of Penwortham, where he challenged me to journey with him to Annwn. Since then I have worked with him as a guide to the otherside of my local landscape and its hidden myths. His interest in my locality surprised me at first. However, it seems less surprising when looked at in the context of his role as an ancient underworld god of Britain, particularly in relation to the history and folklore surrounding this site.

Penwortham has been inhabited since 4000BC. The Riversway Dockfinds, a collection of animal bones, 30 human skulls, two dug out canoes and the remains of a timber structure suggest the existence of a lake village on Penwortham Marsh. Nearby is Castle Hill, a point of military and religious importance. There is a church dedicated to St Mary on the summit of Castle Hill, which means it was likely to have been a pre-Christian sacred site.

That the church is dedicated to St Mary and she was also the patron saint of a healing well at the foot of Castle Hill suggest the presence of an earlier female deity with healing powers, who has been Christianised as Mary. Three human skulls found in the wall of the church (17), which may have served an apotraic function suggest superstitious beliefs in chthonic spirits were also once popular but not openly acknowledged.

The survival of the legend of Penwortham Fairy Funeral attests to these superstitions. In the earliest version in Bowker’s Goblin Tales of Lancashire (1878), it is set on Church Avenue on Castle Hill. Two men walking home to Longton encounter a procession of fairies carrying a coffin. Robin, one of the men, looks into the coffin and sees his own miniature corpse. Frightened by the sight, they follow the fairies into St Mary’s graveyard. Robin attempts to prevent the burial by reaching out to grab the leader of the fairies. The procession vanishes and Robin, driven mad, topples to his death from a haystack a couple of months later (18). In later versions, this story takes place on Fairy Lane, which runs through Penwortham Wood at the foot of Castle Hill.

This legend may be interpreted to hint at older beliefs in underworld gods. Church ways are often identified with spirit paths. It is possible that prior to Christianity people believed chthonic spirits to have been actively involved in bearing the deceased to the underworld. The ringing of bells to drive them away and superstitions surrounding lych gates are testaments to fear of such entities. The movement of the legend to Fairy Lane may be seen as an attempt to sever their connection with the church. It is also possible it represents a shift in the energy of the area.

Gwyn ap Nudd and the spirits of Annwn (more frequently referred to as fairies today) are frightening beings. However, they play an essential role in maintaining the relationships between the worlds, the seasons, and the living and the dead. Like death itself and the cold dark of winter they will never go away. Their roles and identities, covered over or ignored for many centuries, can be recovered and understood.

Like Pwyll’s meeting with Arawn, my relationship with Gwyn has changed my life. He guides me to visions in Annwn and the physical world I would not be able to access without him. He teaches me to walk the spirit paths and inspires me to learn the song lines of this land’s ancestral heritage.

As late summer arrives, harvesters take to the fields and leaves begin to fall I sense the spirits of Annwn stirring, the first hint of the breath of winter on the wind. Monday is the date of the commemoration of the beginning of the First World War. When I help lay candles in front of Preston cenotaph for each of the 1956 soldiers who lost their lives I will remember that care of the souls of the battle dead was once believed to be Gwyn’s role.

(1) http://www.caerfeddwyd.co.uk/
(2) http://www.mabinogi.net/sections/Appendix/The_Underworld_Gods.pdf
(3) James MacKilliop, Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, (1998), p375
(4) Robin Herne, Old Gods, New Druids, (2009), p48
(5) A collection of Kingdoms in the North of England and Southern Scotland from 500AD and 800AD.
(6) Transl. William F. Skene, ‘The Dialogue of Gwyddno Garanhir and Gwyn ap Nudd,’ The Four Ancient Books of Wales, (2007), p210-211
(7) Transl. Sioned Davies, ‘How Culhwch Won Olwen,’ The Mabinogion, (2007), p199
(8) Ed. Rachel Bromwich and Simon Evans, Culhwch and Olwen, (1992), p169
(9) Transl. Sioned Davies, ‘How Culhwch Won Olwen,’ The Mabinogion, (2007), p199
(10) https://www.blogger.com/profile/02055792516386371373
(11) Ed. Rachel Bromwich and Simon Evans, Culhwch and Olwen, (1992), p133
(12) Ibid. p150
(13) Elen Sentier, Elen of the Ways, (2013), p26-28
(14) Dafydd ap Gwilim, Poems, (1982), p132 – 133
(15) http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/collen.html
(16) Francis Thompson, The Hound of Heaven and Other Poems, (2000), p11
(17) Rev C. Nelson, St Mary’s Church, Penwortham, Lancashire, Archaeological Watching Brief and Explanation, (2011), p48
(18) http://www.gutenberg.org/files/39712/39712-h/39712-h.htm#THE_FAIRY_FUNERAL

Many thanks to Heron and Lee at Caer Feddwyd for bringing Will Parker’s article to my attention.

The Search for Mabon

Mabon son of Modron… was taken when three nights old from between his mother and the wall… No-one knows where he is, nor what state he’s in, whether dead or alive.’
– How Culwch Won Olwen

Narrator:
On the verge of May when the veil is thin
Between city and suburb and faery hall and glen
Modron born of Avalon bewails her missing son.
If he is not rescued, summer will not come.

Across Britain’s suburbs and industrial towns
A clarion blast sounds on a white bone horn.
The landscape reverberates like water at its call.
Plunging steeds leap forth bearing fair Cai tree tall,
Bedwyr swinging the spear of nine blows,
Gwalchmai hawk eyed screeching,
Gwryrh each language speaking,
Cynddylig guide, Menw the enchanter,
And Eidoel son of slaughter.

Cai:
We’ve searched all of Wales and England too
Mabon is lost midst the sky scraper rows.
The impenetrable wall we cannot break through.
Hidden is his prison and invisible its rooms.

Gwalchmai:
We’ve lost the wolf and elk, walrus and bear
See the drays of grey squirrels have replaced the red.
The countryside has evaporated, bees are humming scarce,
The wildest animals are gone. This land is sunk in death.

Gwryrh:
I’ve spoken to the cattle, sheep and pigs
And the household pets but they no longer speak.
I’ve tried asking people but they neither see nor hear,
While the darkness keeps darkening and Modron weeps.

Menw:
The curse on this land cloys denser than a spell,
Its wizards are more cunning than the witches of Caerglow.
As Mabon’s release is their shining sun
If he remains in prison then their days are done.

Cai:
Why should we care?

Gwalchmai:
The subjects here are our distant sons and daughters
Prisoners like Mabon in their tower block quarters.

Bedwyr:
And if Mabon is not sought,
Twrch Trwyth will not be caught,
The razor he carries stolen,
Yssbaddaden will not be shaven
And Culwch will not win Olwen.

Cai:
Then we must seek out the oldest animals.
I believe a blackbird can be found nearby.

Blackbird of Cilgwri (on the Wirral Peninsula):
When I first came here I alighted on an anvil,
Watched engrossed the glow of the furnace and hot iron.
My song combined with the hammer as I pecked,
Joined by centuries of smiths until only a nut remained.
When factories replaced the forge I hid it.
My nut and I survived the blitz.
I have seen industry rise and fall and suburbs sprawl
But know not the prison of Modron’s son.
Yet I know one shaped before me who might
And if you wish I will serve as your guide.

Stag of Rhendynfre (in Cheshire):
When I first came here there was an oak sapling
That grew like my antlers branching into a mighty crown.
It fell, leaving a stump red with blood. Over Farndon
Welsh and Angles, Royalists and Roundheads fought.
I have seen battles aplenty lost and won
But know not the prison of Modron’s son.
But I know one shaped before me who might
And if you wish I will serve as your guide.

Owl of Cwm Calwyd (in Gwynedd):
When I first came here this vale of Conwy was wild wood
Destroyed by men, grown back, brought down again.
I have seen mine shafts sunk, pit men gone
But know not the prison of Modron’s son.
But I know one shaped before me who might
And if you wish I will serve as your guide.

Eagle of Gwernabwy (in Gwynedd):
When I first came here from my tall rock I tasted the stars, rolled
Their crackle on my tongue and passed their wisdom to my young.
Now my rock is sunk, the sky forbidden. To Gwynedd
I have seen carloads of holiday makers come,
But know not the prison of Modron’s son.
Yet in a lake on the Severn dwells a salmon
Who drowned me before I wrenched fifty tridents from his spine.
I think you might benefit from his wisdom.

Salmon of Llyn Lliw (on the mouth of the Severn):
Mabon was once prisoner in Gloucester’s wall
But now the cell is empty, his captors gone.
Rumour tells me by the Ribble in the North
Mabon is imprisoned in another house of stone.

Narrator:
Down the old tram road they see the Ribble’s shining vista,
Hear the song of the river, catch the moonlight shimmer.
From the dazzling pitch and flow a salmon pokes his nose.

Salmon of the Ribble:
Stand upon on my shoulders and to Mabon we will go.

Narrator:
The intrepid troupe assemble on the salmon’s back
And ride to the north bank with their steeds swimming behind.

Salmon of the Ribble:
Cross through Avenham Park to the city of Preston.
Listen for the groan of Mabon in his prison.
Modron’s son is cruelly engorged
In the seat of all that’s wicked- in the Centre of St George.

Narrator:
Lances high to starry sky, flags unfurled the cavort ride
Crashing over tarmac and bursting neon lights
To rally at the entrance of the centre of all evil
Where the elevators slide and the lifts glide baleful.
Artificial lights light the artificial caer
And a one eyed giant bawls

One Eyed Giant
Who goes there?

Cai:
Mount the lance, draw the sword, stay the shield, set the spear,
We will tear down the walls like the fire cracks a bier.
Wheel the steed, raise our arms, to this wickedness amend
Wrest the son from his prison, by the hand of my friend.

Narrator:
Doorways shatter like a crystal cave in
Steeds arc bucking like the breath of Faery
Down the false lit corridor their swiftness chasing
To the circlet hall where the giant is waiting.

His circular eye is as gold as wealth
His maw brims wide to devour the world
Glistening black as a politician’s soul
He unwinds his scales into dragon form.

Cai smites with lethal bright immutable sword,
Growing taller than the tallest of the trees on Avenham park.
One thrust from handsome Bedwyr strikes nine blows
Driving the serpent into dismal throes.
Eidoel Aer, pepped for the slaughter
Cuts a phalanx of sores into the creature’s quarters.
Gwalchmai’s hawk pecks its eye bone bare
Cai thrusts his sword into the eyeless stare.
The scales subside like a sliding slogan
At the flick of nine wands the spell is broken.

Ascend nine wizards in immaculate suits
They float on greed and designer shoes.
Their ties are tied in perfect knots
Like the bonds of life in the hangman’s garrotte.

Menw steps forward with his wand of hazel

Menw:
Subtle illusionists, cease your evil!

Wizard One:
Fools of Faery, you don’t stand a chance
When the light of the world lies locked in our banks.

Wizard Two:
Deep in our vaults Mabon laments
As we sap out his life to sustain our command.

Cai:
Curse your greed, we will have our inspiration.
Menw, weave a spell, let us fight his liberation.

Narrator:
Menw raises his wand, the hallowed hall crackles
And rocks in rivets like a dome in shackles.
Shop faces fall like dull dumb dolls,
Beauty’s errant features leak ugly holes.

Deep within the atmosphere the air is shimmering
Strangled in their suits the wizards are shrivelling.
On the strike of spear and sword thick runs the gore
Sluicing parapets of wealth down the stairs and out the doors.
Slicing through disguise, every garment falls
The knights of Faery tear down the wall.

From the house of stone, Mabon rises,
On the slender stroke of dawn, as a shaft of beaming light.
Pure and youthful, small but bright,
His miniscule frame holds infinitesimal might.

He leashes his hound, mounts white dark mane
Travailing forth at a time of desperation.
Gathers the reins, readies his bow,
Notches an arrow for a-hunting he must go.

Hence Mabon was sought,
Twrch Trwyth was caught,
The razor was stolen,
Yssbaddaden was shaven
And Culwch won Olwen.

Modron born of Avalon gathers in her arms
And rejoices glad her fleeting son as beaming summer comes.